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Black Sky Thinking

The High Cost Of Being In A Band, By Palehorse
The Quietus , June 17th, 2014 12:44

Ben Dawson is the drummer in the heavy-as-fuck group Palehorse and he has had enough of the whinging about the price of gig tickets, merchandise and records that punk bands charge. Here he explains why people should cough up and shut up

I recently posted some fag packet figures on the Palehorse Facebook page (footnote 1) about how much it costs us to be in a band after reading a blog about the attitude of punters to hardcore bands' show, record and merchandise prices. The blog, entitled Why Slacktivist Fan Entitlement Is Slowly Killing Punk by Paul Blest, essentially focuses on the cultural difference between punk/hardcore punters and those of other music genres. Blest takes issue with the fact that the "punks" are quick to call "sell-out" whilst shelling money out for consumer goods:

"The bands and labels get a resounding chorus of "fuck you" from entitled brats who have no problem paying $4 for a drink from Starbucks, $20 for a case of beer, or $1500 for a Macbook, but somehow don't have the money to throw $10 to a band for a good show or $15 for a record that will last a lifetime."

The Quietus kindly asked me to expand on my post and I'm glad to do so as it gives me a chance to develop those musings. I want to address the idea that bands are "selling out" if they do try and really make a go of it and have to ask for ticket prices of (gasp!) £15-20 a show. I think that many of the arguments from those on the "you're just not punk, man" side of the fence are brought about by misconceptions of what it costs to be a working band.

The fabled "Fugazi" model of old isn't one that is untenable; it's just that the figures haven't kept up with inflation. That £5 ticket from 1990 would be £11 today. A £10 ticket would be £21 (footnote 2). On top of that, Fugazi would be shifting records both at shows and via their label. Today we're asking bands to play for less (in inflationary terms) than they would have done and we're not buying records like we used to. It's not sustainable.

My original post was pasted up by someone on the drowned in sound message board and I was surprised at some of the hostile responses from people who took it to be a moan about what we do and the lack of appreciation that we might receive from it. Highlights included:

"They're making shit choices with money and then putting it at the feet of their 'fans'. It's bullshit."

"They could do what other people do and get jobs. And not be dumb enough to spend £1,500 on t-shirts and/or ridiculous amounts on practises [sic]"

and the excellent,

"That's a dreadful name for a heavy band. Probably why they're losing so much money."

I think, perhaps, that the gist of my post wasn't particularly clear so let's get some things straight.

ONE. I love playing in bands. I love it. I've been playing drums since I was nine years old and I've been gigging since I was sixteen. I'm now thirty-two and I have no intentions of stopping.

TWO. I never intended to be successful with any band I was in (though I did get caught up in a small whirlwind for a few years which, in the long run, only cemented for me the idea that aspiring to a career in music is a ridiculous objective both from an artistic and financial standpoint).

THREE. Even if nobody (as opposed to nearly nobody) came to see my band or bought our records I would still be spending the time and money to get in a room with my best friends and write horrendous music every other Saturday.

FOUR. I have a full time job and have no intention of leaving it. Music is not my job nor do I want it to be. I have views on how earning from art can compromise the art itself but that's another argument for another day.

What follows are the (recalculated since my original post) figures for a three-year Palehorse album cycle. This is coming from a band that does charge the minimum for everything we can and an illustration of just where that approach gets you.

We practice every other Saturday for seven hours at £78 a go. Storage is £120 a month. Yes, you can find cheaper places but we've found a happy medium between a reasonable price and not having to practice in a total shithole on equipment held together with gaffa tape and jizz.

Gear costs are hard to judge but drumsticks at a bundle rate are £8.32 a pair which, if you accept that I go through between 50 and 100 pairs a year is between £416 and £832 a year alone. Factor in plectrums, leads, skins, batteries, pedals, synths, bass heads (buy cheap, buy fifty times) and it all mounts up.

So, your basic annual rehearsal costs are (estimated):

Practice: £1,950
Storage: £1,440
Gear: £1,500

That's a total of £4,890.

Shows in London cost us £110 to play because that's how much it costs to hire the van from our studio to take the gear there and pick us back up at the end of the night. Can you guess how much we ask to get paid for a show in London? £110. So after costs we make… ah. Right. Shows outside London cost significantly more if you're not on tour which means that even with our excellent, ridiculously cheap (and available for hire with her own van) driver, Gill ( we're still having to shell out anywhere between £200 to £250 a show.

Now, as it happens, we're so old and jaded we won't play a show if someone won't cover our costs but that means we turn down a lot of shows in and outside London which could bring us more listeners. As we're not aspiring to glory, though, we've decided not to piss away even more money on the off chance that a show might be a good one. That may seem "un-punk" to some but I think of it as "doing what we fucking want".

I'd like to, however, imagine the costs of a band who put in a modicum more effort than us, so assuming we turn down half as many London and out of London gigs as we accept (say 7 of each a year) and assuming that they would have paid us half of the break even for both (say £55 for London shows and £112.50 for out of London shows) you're looking at an additional net loss each year of £1,256.25.

It takes us about three years to write and record an album. Our last record cost about £2,000 to record (room hire, recording and mixing). Multiply the above costs by three, tack on the recording cost and you've got yourself a three-year outlay of £18,438.75.

It's not a million pounds but by anyone's standards, it's a lot of money. When we've spent that money, we go searching for someone to put it out and promote it for us. We buy our latest record (2013's Harm Starts Here) from our label at £5 a unit and sell them on at £8 (individually). At a £3 mark-up we'd have to sell just under 6,150 CDs to make back our three year outlay. I believe our highest selling album (2003's Gee, That Ain't Swell) shifted somewhere in the region of 1,200. Considering that we do a deal where we sell all four of our records, plus a T-shirt for £25 you can see that we're never making back the money we put into it.

As I said, we don't do this for the money and we sell our CDs and T-shirts as cheaply as possible just to get our music out and about but we also made a conscious choice to not pursue music as a living which comes at the price of time that could have been spent creating.

To clarify again, I'm not writing this as a plea for people to please buy our stuff (but do please buy our stuff) and it's not about Palehorse but any band that you might be into. If you do like a band enough to want to listen to the record that they spent a lot of time and money making, why not give them some money for doing so? We all have decent jobs and so we swallow these costs without giving them too much thought because it's what we love to do but not everyone is able to do that and they might just be the ones whose music you really love.

To denigrate a band for trying to do it full time and dedicate all of their efforts to creativity is ridiculous. That monthly black hole in a musician's budget becomes a heavy burden, particularly as we all get older and have children to support. The heavier that weight gets, the easier it is to cut it loose forever. With it goes music that might have been made.

*1. We're a band, don't you know. Oh. You didn't? We get that a lot. You can listen to us at the Palehorse Bandcamp page


[Harm Starts Here by Palehorse was one of tQ's favourite albums of 2013. They are going on tour with Möngöl Hörde this week. The dates are below:]

Thu 19 - The Institute, Library, Birmingham
Fri 20 - Academy 2, Newcastle
Sat 21 - Cockpit, Leeds
Sun 22 - Fleece, Bristol
Mon 23 - Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth
Wed 25 - The Garage, London
Fri 27 - Rock City Basement, Nottingham
Sat 28 - Academy 3, Manchester
Sun 29 - King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow